Ancestral Period: There was an ancestral belief in the awe-inspiring divine Mothers, the Àwọn Ìyá Wa (iyá mis), that possess the power Àjẹ́, which existed in many African nations.
Middle Ages: There was a widespread belief in Galician meigas (holy women), and bruxas (witches), prosecuted by the Holy Inquisition, existed in Spain and Portugal.
Traditional Africa: In Africa, Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ spectacles were performed to appease the dangerous power, Àjẹ́, of the powerful, Ancestral Mothers.
1700s-1900s: Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ festivals were held annually in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil until the death of the third iyalorixá (priestess) of the Ilê Iyá Nasô (Casa Branca) Candomblé terreiro (religious community).
1900s (Early): Pombagira appeared as an Umbanda entity.
1920s: The first Umbanda groups started to appear in northeastern urban Brazil (Rio de Janeiro).
Pombagira is an entity from the highly syncretic twentieth-century Brazilian Umbanda/Quimbanda religion. [Image at right] Her origins are in the European wise women, and in the pan-African Ìyàmi Òṣòròngà, both degraded as “witches,” as well as in the god Bombonjira, a Congo name for the Yoruba trickster and mediator god, Exu. In contemporary Brazil, Pombagira is the female counterpart of Exu, and she is portrayed as a street woman with all her vices and strength, an epitome of “the other.” She appears when Umbanda initiates enter into trances embodying her. This powerful figure has been identified with a female devil, but simultaneously is invoked for strength, protection, and support. She is a representation of a prostitute, an independent woman who has “seven husbands” and does not accept male domination. Pombagira is associated with transition and dangerous places, such as the crossroads, cemeteries, markets, beaches and garbage deposits (in the case of Maria Molambo [Raggedy Pombagira], and Pombagira da Lixeira [Garbage Pombagira]), as well as with possession trances, advice giving, blood sacrifice, alcohol, and the colors red and black. She is a female trickster figure. The archaic trickster persona is present in myths and folktales around the world. He/she is always an outsider and a marginal character that cannot be trusted, and is characterized by excessive behavior.
Pombagira’s name, and persona appear to be a synthesis and a reinterpretation of several popular traditions. According to Monique Augras, Pombagira was “born” as a transformation of Bombonjira, a Congo name for the Yoruba god Exu, [Image at right] mediator, trickster, and a fallic deity, into Bombagira and then Pombagira. An analysis of this name is revealing, as gira is the name of an Umbanda ritual and means “action of circling” in Portuguese, as well as “path” (nila/njira) in Bantu. In Portuguese, pomba means “pigeon” and is slang for the masculine sexual organs in the northeast, and the feminine sexual organs in the south of Brazil. On the other hand, for the BaKongo, pemba is the white clay that cleanses, and signifies “the mountain of the dead;” in Yorubaland (Nigeria and Benin) it symbolizes Obatalá, the orisa funfun (white) (Washington 2005:67). In Brazil, Obatalá corresponds to the orixá (god) Oxalá, identified with Jesus Christ. Pombagira may also be associated with the Àwọn Ìyá Wa (iyá mi), the powerful, awe-inspiring, and independent African ancestral mothers, manifested in today’s Afro-Brazilian worship of female orixás such as the iabás Nanã, Obá, Iemanjá, Oxum, Ewa, and Iansã/Oyá (Santos 1993:14-17).
In Yorubaland, one of the main ancestral places for Brazilian traditions, researchers have documented the existence of a mighty feminine energy Àjẹ́, “a cosmic force that originates with Great Mother Deities,” often misunderstood as “witch.” It is “a biological, physical, spiritual force of creativity and social and political enforcement. A vastly influential power that is inclined toward paradox and multiplicity,” Àjẹ́ is embodied in the Àwọn Ìyá Wa, Àwọn Ìyàmi Òṣòròngà, as well as in certain persons of power. These powerful ancestral Mothers, also named iyá mi (“my mother”), Ìyàmi (“My Mysterious Mother”), Yewájọbí (“The Mother of All the Òrìṣà and All Living Things”), Àgbàláàgbà (“Old and Wise One”), and Ayé (“The Earth”) (Washington 2005:13–14), possess such mystical and dangerous powers (Àjẹ́) that they must be appeased in the Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ spectacles, through a satirical masquerade.
Pombagira, in her different avatars, is a unique Brazilian creation, a female version of Exu, and as such is famous for being insatiable, promiscuous, vulgar, and talkative. Exu is the messenger and mediator African god with characteristics of a trickster. His colors are red and black, and his symbol is fire. In Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé, Exu is the dynamic, propelling principle, responsible for communication. This orixá of destiny and the crossroads, who opens the paths for any enterprise, is the first to be given reverence in any ceremony. In Umbanda, Exus are identified with spirits of particular persons from the past, and they are divided into “superior” and “inferior” “non-baptized” Exus, such as Zé Pilintra [Image at right] and the Pombagiras, which are seen as demonic forces. Exu spirits do the “dirty work” the orixás cannot perform, are considered their “slaves,” and they only obey “the logic of the marketplace” of a capitalist society (Hayes 2011:193). It is also believed that every living being has their personal Exu.
The multifarious Pombagira is one of the most powerful entities of the Umbanda religion. As a liminal being par excellence, Pombagira is strongly connected to marginality, ambiguity, sacred powers, transformation and transmutation of matter, the passage from life to death, and vice versa, and she may be accompanied by symbols of death. Pombagira´s favorite dwelling places are crossroads and cemeteries. The liminality of this figure is both spatial and temporal, as she is often linked to the outskirts and to the transition between day and night; this reflects the social marginalization of large groups of her devotees in Brazil. She is also connected to blood and regeneration, sometimes requiring blood sacrifice. In addition, she is linked to possession trances, usually performed by women, during which the mediums speak. Pombagira is connected to human sexuality and to love magic, as well as to blood and death, thus containing the life cycle.
In African and Afro-Brazilian philosophical thought, there is a strong belief in continuity between god, the orixás, the spirits of the dead, and human beings. The Umbanda pantheon includes different figures, such as santidades (holy figures, such as god and the orixás), and entidades (entities). Pombagira is one of the main, four traditional types of Umbanda’s entidades: Caboclos (Indians), Prêtos Velhos (Old Slaves), Crianças/Erês (Children), and Exus. Pombagiras, together with such Exus as Zé Pilintra, represent the povo da rua or “street spirits,” usually malandros (conmen) and prostitutes. [Image at right] They dress in red and black, colors of the orixá Exu, although white may also be used. In Umbanda they are considered “lower” or “non-evolved” spirits of “darkness” (trevas) or “of the left” (da esquerda), who can “evolve” by practicing “charity” (giving advice to devotees). It is not surprising to find the voiceless personae of Indians, Old Slaves, Children, and Tricksters as the main types of Umbanda entities, as they reflect the marginality of their worshippers.
To understand the Pombagira entity we need to consider the context in which she appeared, that of Umbanda, a modern religion from urban Brazil. Umbanda, which similar to Pentecostalism has been called “a cult of affliction” (Burdick 1990:159), able to empower the powerless, is a highly syncretized Brazilian religion that started in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is believed that Umbanda, with its “inferior” and liminal entities, such as Pombagiras, appeared as a consequence of rapid industrialization and massive migration of marginalized individuals from rural areas as well as from abroad, to large cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, at the turn of the nineteenth century. (Martine and McGranahan 2010:8; Sadlier 2008:184, 319). Umbanda does not deal with death or with salvation of the soul, but rather, is a religion of life, concerned with the manipulation of daily reality. It is a practice geared towards everyday survival in difficult life circumstances, used to alleviate afflictions of the body, the mind, and the spirit. Ill health, love and financial problems, as well as other areas of daily subsistence that require constant attention, are a special focus of Umbanda. These disorders of reality require a mystic cure that Umbanda rituals can provide.
The liminality of Umbanda entities such as Exus, and Pombagiras bestows them with unusual power. Their dwelling places are the street, the crossroads, the market, and the cemetery, places of transition, ambiguity, and insecurity, in which, nonetheless, they know how to operate. This is opposite to the privileged sectors of society, for most of which these places are off limits; they are only places of transition, not their dwelling places. But people in certain occupations (such as street vendors, prostitutes, taxi drivers, policemen, drug dealers, and thieves) also dwell in these places, and they often seek the aid and protection of special entities, such as Exus and Pombagiras in Brazil, and Santa Muerte in Mexico.
In Umbanda, as in Candomblé, the majority of participants seek a terreiro or religious community for help with their physical or emotional ailments, for which they could not find a cure at a doctor’s office, because they could not afford such a luxury, or because the help needed was outside and beyond the area of possibilities of any officially accepted practices. Belonging to a terreiro, with its regular rituals, such as giras (“ceremonies”), consultation with guides, divination, despachos (“offerings”), and other obrigações (“obligations”), alleviates or eliminates the initiates’ problems. In the practice of Umbanda and Quimbanda (a black magic aspect of the religion) we can also find macumbas or attempts to harm someone, which can be regarded as ways of remedying scarcity. The word macumba has several meanings, from Afro-Brazilian possession religions in general, to an “offering,” to sorcery or “works of the left” (da esquerda). According to Brumana and Martinez, Macumbas, mirongas, or “works,” in the latter sense, are equivalent to attempts to obtain some gain by damaging someone else. In the case of the macumbas, “the question of scarcity is symbolically dramatized and solved: To give is to take from another.” (1989:231, 237-38). Trabalhos or “works” are thus magical practices geared towards helping afflicted individuals. In the Umbandist universe a miraculous cure may be attained through symbolic manipulation in which Pombagira is often the mediator.
In Brazil´s Umbanda, a person can be “chosen” by an entity (entidade) to serve her through embodiment in divine possession trances, during which she speaks with the deity’s voice and gives advice to devotees. The problems that can be remedied by advice, rituals, and offerings prescribed by the embodied entity/goddess range from physical, mental or undefined illness, family and marital disturbances, employment and legal troubles, including harm provoked by malefic forces. Through their sacred roles as Pombagira’s mediums, women in Brazil may attain financial independence, respect, and status that are otherwise unattainable in their destitute environments.
As her African and European predecessors, Pombagira is a powerful persona. She is addressed formally, as dona, senhora or você and by her name (Prandi, “Pombagiras;” (Brumana and Martinez 1989:188). It has been revealed that a close relationship with her can be the source of strength, protection, autonomy, recognition, and prestige for women who keep an altar to her at their homes. Among offerings to Pombagiras are alcohol, cigarettes, and open red roses.
There are different types of “families” of Pombagiras in Brazil: Pombagiras Ciganas (“Gypsy Pombagiras”), Marias Molambo (“Raggedy Pombagiras”), Pombagiras “cruzadas” da Linha das Almas (“crossed” Pombagiras of the Line of the Souls), and Pombagiras Meninas or “Virgin Child Pombagiras,” among others. Some of the most widely known of them are Pombagira Rainha das Sete Encruzulhadas (“Queen of the Seven Crossroads”), Rainha do Cruzeiro (“Queen of the Cross”), da Encruzilhada (“of the Crossroads”), da Figueira (“of the Fig Tree”), da Calunga (“of the Cemetery”), das Sete Calungas (“of the Seven Cemeteries”), da Porteira (“of the Gate”), da Sepultura (“of the Sepulcre”), das Sete Sepulturas (“of the Seven Sepulcres”), das Sete Sepulturas Rasas (“of the Seven Shallow Sepulcres”), Cigana (“Gypsy”), do Cemitério (“of the Cemetery”), da Praia (“of the Beach”), das Almas (“of the Souls”), Maria Padilha, Pombagira Quitéria, Pombagira Sete Saias (“Seven Skirts”), Pombagira Dama da Noite (“Lady of the Night”), and Pombagira Mirongueira (“Sorceress”), among others (Molina n.d.:9–10; Prandi 1994:95). The names indicate their wide scope from the poorest to the wealthiest and from the innocent to the most experienced and “impure,” echoing the all-encompassing nature of the African Àwọn Ìyá Wa. Their dwelling places and times are liminal par excellence; they are connected to death, cemeteries, and the night. Pombagiras are considered very mighty and magical, and they receive requests for healing, for help in financial and love affairs, and for attacks against someone. Their specialty is the realm of love and sexuality, and they are known to respond to any request without limitations.
Moreover, Pombagira, a prototype of a prostitute, embodies transgressive femininity, is sexually independent, unsubduable; she is the antithesis of a docile and maternal housewife. According to one Umbanda ponto cantado (ritual song): “She is the wife of seven husbands,/Do not provoke her,/Pombagira is dangerous” (Capone 2004:111). Therefore, thanks to her, mediums may be able to re-interpret their traditional domestic roles and stand up to their abusive husbands (Hayes 2005:86-92). This is illustrated by another ponto cantado: “Pombagira is a tamer/Of fierce donkeys/I have tamed my husband/With six hundred thousand devils” (Capone 2004:112). She only incorporates in women, homosexuals, and transgender individuals, usually the inferior and marginalized elements of society. Her subaltern and liminal position allows transgressions that bestow strength, power, and independence on Pombagira, whose sexuality is divorced from a reproductive role and who is always linked to the idea of prostitution. As an embodiment of the rejected “other,” she is not subject to societal rules and can freely exercise her sexual power. The following Pombagira song reflects her condition:
Pomba-Gira is her destiny
My destiny is this:
Is to have fun!
I drink, I smoke, I jump and dance,
In order to subsist!
Thus I carry out my destiny,
Which is only to have fun! (Bittencourt 2006:110)
This unrestrained relationship with sexuality and the street, typical of liminal personae, is perceived as dangerous by structured, male-dominated society.
In Brazil, santidades, such as the sweetened orixá, Iemanjá, and the Catholic Virgin Mary, are more acceptable counterparts to the street woman, she-devil, Pombagira. She is the heir of mighty, independent, self-sufficient female deities with great frightening powers, such as the pan-African Àwọn Ìyá Wa (“Our Mothers”) or Àwọn Ìyàmi Òṣòròngà (“The Great and Mysterious Mother”), that make them dangerous and may require offerings as well as other means of appeasement. Similar to other figures from different continents and cultures, Pombagira has a strong connection to sexuality, magic, rage, blood, and death, all attributes of liminality. Like her worshippers, she is an outsider and lives at the periphery of society. She is an extremely marginal and dangerous entity in today’s Brazil, but at the same time the most powerful and fascinating one, as she is endowed with magical powers and is believed to be wise and effective. She “gets things done” without regard for if it is “for good” or “for evil.” She dwells in a parallel universe where ambivalent, outsider, trickster entities, and the lives of their powerless worshippers are imbued with meaning.
Pombagira is a female trickster figure that operates within one the four main types of entidades (entities) of Umbanda/Quimbanda. She is part of the povo da rua or street spirits, the ones that have most autonomy and strength within the religion. They are also the most dangerous. Nevertheless, the mediums that incorporate respective entities are very respected, as they transmit the energy and the recommendations of these powerful spiritual beings to the devotees that need their help.
Umbanda does not have a centralized institutional structure, and a variety of religious centers operate independently varying greatly in organization, practices, and beliefs, with the leadership of a mãe or pai de santo (priestess/priest) who has ample autonomy. The leader usually practices African-derived divination, with cowry shells or coconut pieces, for their clients who may or not be members of a given religious community, and prescribes symbolic cures for various types of afflictions of body and mind. Those include offerings, ritual baths, and certain ritual actions. Offerings are usually left at liminal places, such as the crossroads, the cemetery, or the beach (Image at right), which corresponds to the nature of the povo da rua (street spirits), such as Pombagira. The devotees regularly gather for giras (public ceremonies), during which the mediums enter into trances, incorporating the entities and giving advice to devotees. This practice, as well as the fact that during Umbanda ceremonies mediums do not cover their heads, and may smoke and drink alcohol, is opposed to the modus operandi of traditional Afro-Brazilian religions, such as Candomblé, where heads are consistently covered, and nothing is consumed during ceremonies.
Besides being part of the Umbanda/Qimbanda religion, Pombagira is a persona present in many areas of Brazilian life, from literature and song, to soap operas, journalism, and police investigations (Prandi 1994:98). A particular example is a judiciary case occurred in Rio de Janeiro in 1979-1981 that was brought to the public sphere by press articles, in which Pombagira was accused of inciting a woman to commit a crime against an abusive and impotent husband. In this homicide case, the person incorporating Pombagira Maria Padilha, as well as the wife of the victim, and two other accomplices were judged in court and sentenced to fourteen to twenty years in prison each. Among the experts called to help and solve the case were an Umbanda pai-de-santo (priest), a Pentecostal minister, and a psychiatrist (see Contins and Goldman). Similarly, Kelly Hayes in her book, Holy Harlots (2011), brings up an “unresolved” murder case in which the reader can infer that the victim was eliminated by the medium possessed by Pombagira, because that woman was the medium husband’s lover.
As a “threshold persona,” Pombagira lives on the fringes of society, in a contrasting universe, and therefore her transgressions and carnavalizations are uncontrollable. Thus, she fully recuperates her ancient connection to the untamed forces of passion, sexuality, blood, and death of mighty ancient female deities and their representatives. When we hear of murders allegedly perpetrated by Pombagira, such as the ones described above, we are reminded of a line from an ancient Yoruba myth, “Mother that kills her husband yet pities him” (Beier 1958:11), which further reinforces Pombagira’s ambivalence. Her strength springs from her lowermost status, from her all-encompassing duality, from the fact that being an outsider frees her from imposed social rules, which she is able to escape. As Michael Taussig affirms, “The gods and the spirits are always and everywhere ambivalent, and the devil is the arch-symbol of ambivalence” (Taussig 1980:230–31).
No matter how many times religions, such as “White Umbanda,” or female divine figures, such as Iemanjá, become literally and metaphorically whitened and dulcified to appear more tamed and “civilized,” some sectors of Brazilian society find a way to manifest the lost essence of primordial deities and religious practices, essence that in the majority of cases has already been lost in Yorubaland. The ancient function of the “holy harlot” was easier to be reborn in the liminal circumstances of the excluded. These marginal individuals often lack basic services and means of subsistence and create alternative, informal, or illegal circuits of earning an income, and of getting physical, emotional, and supernatural help, including through Pombagiras’ and Exus’ worship. The strong agency of Brazilian Umbanda’s povo da rua is out to remedy blatant crimes and injustices, not resolved by the authorities. Their possible crimes are in turn difficult to detect by representatives of law enforcement. As Ruth Landes stated during her 1938–1939 research in Salvador, Bahia, in regard to Candomblé’s orixás: “[Exu] is really of more value than the gods [orixás] because he gets things done . . . He is ready for service at any time, resting at the cross-roads” (Landes 1940:263).
In view of the empowering role that Pombagira and other povo da rua spirits indiscriminately play for the disenfranchised population of the Brazilian urban centers, because these entities and their worshippers escape the control of structured society, and because of the lack of ethical rules that such spirits must follow, Pombagira has been widely demonized, and is often considered a she-devil. Nevertheless, she continues to be the source of much strength and empowerment, mainly for impoverished women, homosexual, and transgender individuals.
1. Pombagira home altar, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Photograph and permission by author.
2. Representation of Exu, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph and permission by author.
3. Exu Zé Pilintra, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph and permission by author.
4. Povo da rua (street spirits) Pombagira and Exu, Brazil. Photograph and permission by author.
5. Umbanda offering at a beach in Angra dos Reis, Brazil. Photo and permission by author.
Unless otherwise noted, the material in this profile is drawn from Fierce Feminine Divinities of Eurasia and Latin America by Małgorzata Oleszkiewicz-Peralba (Palgrave Macmillan 2015 and 2018). All translations in this text are by the author.
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